Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith Read Free Book Online Page A

Book: Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith Read Free Book Online
Authors: Wilbur Smith
mate lifted a huge canvas drogue and dropped it over the stern. Like the curb on a headstrong stallion it bit deep in the water and pulled up the Lady Edwina sharply. Again Sir
Francis judged the disparate speeds of the two vessels, and nodded with satisfaction.
    Then he looked down his own deck. The majority of the men were concealed below decks or lying under the bulwarks where they were invisible even to the lookouts at the galleon’s masthead.
There was no weapon in sight, all the guns hidden behind their ports. When Sir Francis had captured this caravel she had been a Dutch trader, operating off the west African coast. In converting her
to a privateer, he had been at pains to preserve her innocent air and prosaic lines. Only a dozen or so men were visible on the decks and in the rigging, which would be normal for a sluggish
merchantman.
    As he looked up again the banners of the Republic and the Company broke out at the Dutchman’s mastheads. Only a trifle tardily she was acknowledging his salute.
    ‘She accepts us,’ Ned grunted, as he held the Lady Edwina stolidly on course. ‘She likes our sheep’s clothing.’
    ‘Perhaps!’ Sir Francis replied. ‘And yet she cracks on more sail.’ As they watched, the galleon’s royals and top-gallants bloomed against the morning sky.
    ‘There!’ he exclaimed a moment later. ‘She is altering course, sheering away from us. The Dutchman is a cautious fellow.’
    ‘Satan’s teeth! Just sniff her!’ Ned whispered, almost to himself, as a trace of spices scented the air. ‘Sweet as a virgin, and twice as beautiful.’
    ‘It’s the richest smell you’ll ever have in your nostrils.’ Sir Francis spoke loudly enough for the men on the deck below to hear him. ‘There lies fifty pounds a
head in prize money if you have the notion to fight for it.’ Fifty pounds was ten years of an English workman’s wages, and the men stirred and growled like hunting hounds on the
leash.
    Sir Francis went forward to the poop rail and lifted his chin to call softly up to the men in the rigging, ‘Make believe that those cheese-heads over there are your brothers. Give them a
cheer and a brave welcome.’
    The men aloft howled with glee, and waved their bonnets at the tall ship as the Lady Edwina edged in under her stern.
    K atinka van de Velde sat up and frowned at Zelda, her old nurse. ‘Why have you woken me so early?’ she demanded petulantly, and
tossed the tumble of golden curls back from her face. Even so freshly aroused from sleep, it was rosy and angelic. Her eyes were of a startling violet colour, like the lustrous wings of a tropical
butterfly.
    ‘There is another ship near us. Another Company ship. The first we have seen in all these terrible stormy weeks. I had begun to think there was not another Christian soul left in all the
world,’ Zelda whined. ‘You are always complaining of boredom. It might divert you for a while.’
    Zelda was pale and wan. Her cheeks, once fat, smooth and greased with good living, were sunken. Her great belly was gone, and hung in folds of loose skin almost to her knees. Katinka could see
it through the thin stuff of her nightgown.
    She has puked away all her fat and half her flesh, Katinka thought, with a twinge of disgust. Zelda had been prostrated by the cyclones that had assailed the Standvastigheid and battered
her mercilessly ever since they had left the Trincomalee coast.
    Katinka threw back the satin bedclothes and swung her long legs over the edge of the gilded bunk. This cabin had been especially furnished and redecorated to accommodate her, a daughter of one
of the omnipotent Zeventien , the seventeen directors of the Company. The décor was all gilt and velvet, silken cushions and silver vessels. A portrait of Katinka by the fashionable
Amsterdam artist Pieter de Hoogh hung on the bulkhead opposite her bed, a wedding present from her doting father. The artist had captured her lascivious turn of head. He must have

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